Leah Vincent: It’s All About Perspective

I wanted to jot down a quick thought about the sad story of Leah Vincent. Leah Vincent was recently interviewed on the Katie Couric show about her escape from ultra orthodox Judaism:

From accounts of those who knew her, Leah Vincent was a bright girl who was full of fun. As a precocious child, she was sent to a post high school girls seminary in Israel at the young age of 16. It isn’t surprising, with those accounts, that Leah went on to obtain a Master in Public Policy (MPP) from Harvard University in her secular life. Apparently, the yeshivish family she comes from is considered fairly mainstream and not extreme in their viewpoints. She apparently has a few siblings who have gone on to college, and reportedly has a brother-in-law who is a lawyer. Why then, if other family members had gone to college, were her parents so adamant that she stay within the frum community and not pursue goals within the wider secular world?

Obviously, those of us on the outside don’t know all the specifics of what happened between Leah and her parents. However, from the vantage point of my surface view, my guess is that her parents fell into the reactionary trap of upping the ante. What do I mean by this? Simply that when a parent fears that they are losing their child, they will take an increasingly strict position on matters beyond what they would normally hold in order to stop their child’s behavior.

Those that are familiar with Leah Vincent’s family say that while they are a solidly yeshivish and frum family, they are also pretty chilled, laid back, and accepting of Jews on all levels of frumkeit. They have trouble reconciling the easy going rabbi and rebbitzin they know, to the ultra orthodox parents who yanked their daughter Leah out of her Israeli seminary and brought her home for wearing a sweater that was too tight. They have trouble imagining the compassionate torah leaders of their shul and community kicking their daughter out of their home so that she wouldn’t taint her siblings with her heretical ways.

I think that the answer is that fear leads people to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t. For whatever reasons, again we are not privy to all the details, Leah’s parents feared that she would abandon her orthodox Jewish faith. They knew they had a bright, creative, and precocious child and they fought to keep control over her curiosity. Instead of trying to keep a tight lid on a boiling pot, they would have been better off telling her, “Hashem has given you both a gift and a challenge. Your gift is your intellect and your potential to do wonderful things in this world. Your challenge is to go out into the wider world to hone your talents and yet still stay true to who you are as a Jewish woman. We want to help you navigate this path so that you fulfill your potential as both a scholarly professional and as an observant Jew.”

By trying to squash Leah’s dreams, they ultimately drove her away from the torah observant community altogether. Listening to Leah speak, I feel sadness as an orthodox Jewish woman. Sad because our community needs intelligent, compassionate, and well-spoken women like Leah Vincent. How many more women will be turned away from the orthodox Jewish community because they don’t conform to the strict societal expectations of how a Jewish woman is supposed to behave? We need to nurture souls like Leah Vincent, not drive them away because of our own expectations. Not take a harder line than we would with non-family members because having a child who is going off the derech is a bad reflection upon us. Making decisions out of fear or shame can never have a positive outcome.

I would posit that many of our “at-risk” youth who question Judaism, society, rabbanim, halachot, chumrot – those young people who are having a crisis of faith – they are among our best and brightest. Why? Because they have the ability to question. They have the capacity to think outside of the box. They have the vision to know that there is more than one valid opinion on how to do things. They have the courage to step out of line and say they don’t agree. I would suggest that those young folks going off-the derech have the capability of being the future leaders of klal yisrael. The difference between going off the derech and remaining frum depends on how they are guided, how their concerns are addressed, the freedom they are given to question, and the amount of love they receive in the exchange. As parents, teachers, rabbis, and friends, we have a tremendous amount of power to turn a teen away from yiddishkeit forever, or to broker a lasting commitment that will benefit an entire people. It’s all about perspective.

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23 thoughts on “Leah Vincent: It’s All About Perspective

  1. > I would posit that many of our “at-risk” youth who question Judaism, society, rabbanim, halachot, chumrot – those young people who are having a crisis of faith – they are among our best and brightest.

    Ooh, I’d really like to believe that!

    I think it’s a lot more complicated. There are those who go OTD simply because they’re rebelling, those who go OTD because of bad experiences, those who go OTD because they have irreconcilable questions, and there are the majority which are some combination of reasons.

    I’ve heard it said, though, that those who seriously question religion become either atheists or theologians.

    • “I’ve heard it said, though, that those who seriously question religion become either atheists or theologians.”

      That seems like a fair statement.

      The myriad of potential reasons you list for going OTD are valid. However, I still think there is a group of questioners who are too bright to accept anything at face value, and their questions are met with shock, suspicion, and often rebuke.

  2. from my knowledge of her family (and yes her BIL is a lawyer) i think her father was spot on when he wrote that leah sometimes is not able to separate her imaginings and the facts.
    PS her jewish OTD husband’s name is not vincent, where did she get that sirname?

  3. Sorry, but knowing Leah and her family quite well, I can assure you that much of what she says is false, and as her father writes, she has been suffering from mental illness for many years. Her parents poured their kishkas into her when she was growing up. They sent her to art lessons, special camps, etc. so she would have outlets—and this is the thanks they get. She’s always been extremely angry with them, despite the love they’ve given her and the sacrifices they’ve made for her. The idea that they would be upset by her going to college is preposterous. She represents the community she grew up in to be like some kind of religious fundamentalist cult, when the truth is that 3/4 of the WOMEN that attend her father’s shul are physicians. Yes, they threatened to “lock her away” but that is not because she attempted to leave the fold–it is because she used to cut herself and even attempted suicide at one point. My heart goes out to her family.

    • I haven’t read her book yet, but I do know that every time an off the derech person comes forward with their story they are labelled “mentally ill.” I don’t know what the truth is in this case, as I don’t personally know Leah. I do know that her friends have rallied around her in anticipation of these types of attacks on her character when her book came out.

      • I’m sure in her mind, it is all a mass conspiracy to discredit her, but regardless of someone’s religious affiliations, cutting, suicide attempts and documented hospitilizations all point to mental illness. I say this not just as someone who knows her, not just as someone who grew up in the same community as her, but also as a mental health professional–not that you would need to the degree to know that those kind of behaviors are worthy of a diagnosis.

    • The idea that they’d be upset with her for going to college is preposterous? And you claim to know her family?
      How many of her siblings went to college? How did her parents support her through college?
      And what does mental illness have to do with truth?
      You claim you’re a mental health professional and everyone’s supposed to believe you but you won’t even identify yourself and open yourself up to critical examination the way Leah has.
      I feel bad for your family.

  4. And, if I would sign my name, you’d give me all the credibility in the world? I think you need to examine why it is you accept Leah’s words at face value without questioning her attack on Torah Judaism. Shragi, with regard to your questions (that is, if you really want to have an honest discussion about it rather than attack me because I present a view you don’t like): I am more familiar with the older siblings than the younger (because I am closer in age to them), although it would not surprise me if some of the younger have college education. Many have vocational training–the sister second to the top is married to an attorney. As far as parents supporting any of them through college–it is no secret that Orthodox rabbis do not make six figures, and I therefore doubt that they supported any of them through college. As far as emotional support, she is the only child with whom there is estrangement. What mental illness has to do with the truth is the simple fact that it can skew one’s perception of what the truth actually is. It is clear, Shragi from the aggressive nature of your writing that you have no intention of having a civil discourse, but Dorron, I am more than happy to identify myself via e-mail if you would like to further the discussion. The reason I will not identify myself on a forum such as this is for the sake of my children who 1) I don’t want stumbling upon this and asking me questions about my relationship with this family, which would inevitably by the nature of it force me to introduce facts about my own background, which they’re not yet of an age where it’s appropriate to share with them and 2) because I think it might be hurtful to see their mother being attacked on social media. I thank you for validating my concerns on the latter point.

    • SB – I find it interesting that you are concerned with being attacked on social media, yet you have no compunction about attacking Leah. Like I said before, I have not yet read her book and I don’t know her personally. It sounds like she has had some troubled times in her past, but must she forever be judged by those bad times? Look at the success she is today – and her success is even more impressive taking into account her rocky past.

    • My parents might also tell you that I’m mentally ill and disturbed, and that they poured so much into us kids, moving to Israel to ensure we had a good Jewish education, making the sacrifices they did to integrate into the Charedi community in Israel etc. But that’s their perspective and their narrative. In my own narrative, I’m a highly functioning member of society getting a PhD at MIT despite the stumbling blocks they put in front of me by sending me to a school lacking in secular education and trying to arrange a marriage for me. Of course, if you talk to the siblings who are embarrassed by the memoir, or if you talk to the parents who wished she toed the line, you’ll hear a very different story than if you read Leah’s book. It’s all a matter of perception.

      • JS, I obviously can’t comment on your particular experience, but I will reiterate what I said earlier–going off the derech is not why her family has labeled her mentally ill. Cutting and suicidal behavior and ideations are why. As far as education…I attended the same school she did, and if you watch her interview, she admits to being given a secular education. Most kids who graduated from our school went on to earn college degrees.

  5. SB – After you have responded to the comment Sharon made at 10:19pm, I will decide whether or not further conversation between us will serve a constructive purpose.

  6. Sharon, 1) that’s why she wrote a book and I didn’t…I cherish my privacy far too much 2) My intent is not to “attack” her as much as it is to defend her wonderful family, who I should mention was very much there for me during my own rocky past. Some of my own family members have done things that have negatively impacted me, but I don’t blame them for any of the choices I made. That’s why I take issue with her claims that her mother’s disappointment in her sweater purchase is what ultimately led her to prostitute herself via craig’s list. I am not judging her for any of the difficult times that she went through–I truly feel for her. I remember when she was going through them…my problem is all the blame that she levels at her family when they tried their absolute best to be there for her—they sent her away at her own urging because, at the time, she said she felt too much pressure being the rabbi’s daughter. And, as for success, I guess we measure it differently because in my mind, stepping on others to climb to the top is not success.

  7. SB- Dont fool yourself by the fact you claim to know the family and that they are wonderful people. How a parent deals with there kids is far different than how you would perceive them to deal with there kids.If the parents showed her unconditional love and care and didn’t criticize her or look down on her for her wanting of independence than why would she go off the derech? Kids who live normal happy lives and are given the ability to make decisions and are taught that there wants/ needs are important don’t just abandon there faith. Its when there emotional health is not tuned into and there made to feel bad about how they think and feel that gets them confused. There was something wrong about the fact that she wrote a letter to a guy??? Thats a normal human emotion that should be understood and given credence too. She should have been told that she’s normal and its okay yet its a nisayon that has to be worked on. For the record, i’m single, young and have dealt with bad parents. I lived it and experienced it. While nature obviously plays a role in a kids life, the correct nurture will almost always win over. A child learns to think and value themselves based on what there taught when they are growing up. Not just when they are 16 but it start when they are born. I haven’t met a kid who was truly taught they he was a good kid and whose parents showed true respect and acceptance (not just when he was doing what they wanted) go off the derech. No kid just goes off the derech cause he doesn’t believe in yiddishkeit. On the contrary, most of the ones who go off do believe in Judiasm its just that they were made to feel like bad people since they had human emotions. Leah has taken responsibility for her life. She has a degree from Harvard! Do you??
    By saying that her parents caused her tremendous pain and are responsible for alot of her past isn’t not taking responsibility, rather it may just be the hard luck truth!!
    If she realized this and just did nothing with her life than maybe you can say she has to start moving on and taking responsibility for herself.
    Kids always have to take responsibility for what happened to them, but parents they never have to take any!? Does that make sense??.
    Oh, and Leah just made up everything that she says? There’s a slew of comments that she claimed her parents said to her that each one alone can ruin a child and destroy there self worth. Even if she was lying about some of them, are you willing to say she’s making them all up??
    Based on what she writes it seems like my family is similar to hers. Normal not perceived to be overly extreme in any way. My father is a respected man and a principal of a yeshiva school with over 800 kids in it. No one who know my parents will assume that they made so many mistakes that impacted me. A persons chinuch of there own children is far different and more complex than how they come across and deal with other people. And for her mental issues, how sure are you that those didn’t stem from her upbringing? maybe the critizm that she received played large roll in her mental issues.
    That’s a longer discussion and I cant go into detail about it on this blog.

  8. I too lived in pittsburgh in this community. The school encouraged seminary- not college. Learning a trade at a seminary is very different than going to college. Having your husband be a lawyer is not the same as the woman being a lawyer. The Hs prohibited the boys going to a pizza restaurant because god forbid you should talk to a girl. If that is how they believe they should live and want to live that way that is their choice. But it doesn’t work for everyone. The shul may have professional woman but that does not mean that in her home that was encouraged. If you are truly part of a Yeshivish community or Haredi one you have to fit the mold or you will not be excepted as truly one of them.The old Yeshivish communties and the ones of today are very different. Today people are becoming more and more restrictive. They are so restrictive most people are not even taught the Halacha properly vs..the Chumarah’s. i.e. Rav moshe said all milk in america is cholov Yisroel becuase we know it is cows milk and therefore has the halachic status of being watched by a jew. I know many many people that think if you eat a hershey bar it is mamash treif. This is not Torah, this is people’s ignorance. And they will make the kids feel like they are doing the worst thing by eating hershey’s, wearing a blue shirt, not wearing a black hat, writing a note to a boy etc… And even, even if your kid gave up shabbat, wouldn’t you still love them and have a relationship with them? Why would you reject them because they have a difficulty with something- why would you reject them because they are not exactly like you? Many people unfortunately turn their back on their children. If a child has a mental illness would you not help them and keep them close? Leah’s book is about her heartache and struggle. She writes it to help other’s who are feeling lost and confused. Who are turning to drugs and suicide. This is real. I know a very special Rabbi in Israel who works with kids and is saving their lives! That doesn’t mean they return to their Haredi community with beard and long payiot. It means he literally saves their life and they can now function in the world, be a good productive member of society and be a wonderful Jew! I hope that everyone listens to her story, (the details don’t even matter) and realizes that a very restrictive life does not work for everyone, and we must stop rejecting Jews and have a loving relationship with our children NO MATTER WHAT!

    • Rachel, you bring up a lot of good points and I agree with much of what you write on a macro level…i.e. people not being taught to distinguish between chumra and base halacha, etc., but in this specific instance some of your commentary is full of holes for lack of knowledge of Leah’s family and what was going on at the time. Nobody turned their back on her–they tried to reach out to her and she pushed them away. As much as I would love to believe that she wrote this book to help others that are struggling with similar issues, it reeks of being just another dig at her parents. They have one other child who went off the derech and they continue to have a loving relationship with him because they respect each other and don’t rub things in each other’s faces. As far as your Pittsburgh experience, it was clearly different than mine. It’s true that the school encourages seminary, but that is not to say that they discourage college. At least half of my class went to college (I don’t keep up with everyone, but of those that I do, I know this to be the case.) And, as far as the sister who married an attorney, she has an impressive degree and prestigious career in her own right…they actually moved a few years ago because of job opportunities that she had. The rules of separation between the boys and the girls were only enforced for the “boarders,” because their parents sent them away for school with the understanding that the school would look out for them, so to speak. Those were the agreed upon rules when they were accepted into the school. As an “in-towner” no one ever told me where I could and could not hang out. And, while I agree with your point about a lot of yeshivish communities forcing people to fit into a mold that might not be right for them, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that Pittsburgh is that kind of community. Leah did not live such a sheltered prohibitive existence. Her father incorporated Elvis and Beatles music into his Purim Shpiels…we’re hardly talking about New Square.

      • SB- apparently u didn’t read what I wrote. If you did you would realize why your explanation makes little sense. Additionally, I personally spoke to Leah and she told me that she is more than willing to have a genuine reconciliation with her parents. So I don’t know where u are getting your facts from.

  9. Sharon: Just wanted to say I found your comments thoughtful. The strength of Judaism (any faith or any value system, in its most general form) is based on one generation passing on its understanding of the covenant and the following generation faithfully and sincerely adapting it to its time and circumstances.

    Martin Buber wrote in one of his books on Hasidic tales (paraphrased): “Why do we say Dear God and God of our fathers? Because each generation must approach God both from the wisdom of his parents and from the his own personal thoughts and convictions/”

    • Thanks for reading. I think it’s true that we neglect our own personal relationship with God, and focus more on the “God of our forefathers” angle. Our concept of God must necessarily grow and change to have current relevance. It isn’t enough for many folks to say that God is timeless and unchanging – and our way of worshiping and thinking about God must therefore be unchanging. Our understanding of God can grow and develop, and we can find new interpretations of God’s words and presence that we never discovered before.

  10. leah is narcistically juvenile. her mother may have made mistakes,but there are children who are so needy and empty,nooncan fill their needs. her needs are fulfilled now, she should not make it on her parents back by humiliating them ,embarassing and huriting them cruelly. she should realize that she has made it and work for tikun not for the world but for her own good and her familys. we have needs but cannot fill them with others paying the price. embarrasment is like murder.
    someday her children might enjoy their bobbie and zeidi.
    look forward not backward, and be thankful for your life.
    your parents gave you life and your d.n.a. hatzlacha,

  11. I don’t think that one can honestly say that a father (as Leah’s) who is strict about certain books (like Rabbi N Slifkin) being banned and a mother who is strong about boys and girls not becoming friends and being at separate schools from age 11 is mainstream. It is true that there are very different expectations of males and females in that home.

    Leah seems to be someone who processes things through talking. Her father has no use for that and tells people who are external processors that he is too busy for them or they are waisting his time. He considers humility to be a gentle toe the line personality like the man charged with sexual abuse that her father wrote a character letter for rather than honesty and realness that people with all personalities can have.

    Her Rabbi father can rush his wife in a critical tone while not offering to help her get tea and snacks together. He may be able to talk and write about intellectual things, but he also tells people who disagree with leadership to be quiet rather than dialogue and can be very acusative without dialoguing about facts. He has told people under his guidance to not speak with certain people.

    It is a lot easier for someone to come across to people that don’t have intimate relationship with the person or for long as being laid back or accomodating, especially if you don’t challenge him to see how he is when defensive or angry. I can tell you that before Leah’s story was public that I heard her father say multiple times that all of his kids talk with him and his wife on the phone once a week. If he truly has not disowned her in any form then he should have been saying most of my kids or all my kids except one. It makes me sick to see how many people are so quick to call her a lier or puring talking out of mental illness.

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